How My Hoped For Cute-splosion Became a More Moving Experience Than I Had Anticipated

This post was supposed to be adorable. It was going to be filled with pictures of me sporting a cute, crimped ponytail, scooping some panda poo and making panda lunches. I was hopefully that it would also include photos of me actually feeding a panda the lunch I had just lovingly made him in the nearby panda kitchen.

And alas, I was off to a great start.

After a 5AM alarm woke me in what was still the dark of the night, I scarfed down some Marshmallow Maties and headed out the door to be the first one at the consulate for the day’s exciting adventure. (If only we knew then just how exciting it would be…) Half an hour later, as I leaned against the van, checklist in hand, counting heads and collecting cash, I had a moment where I thought I was going crazy. You see, ever since the 2008 earthquake, I have been less than trusting of the steadiness of the earth beneath my feet. So as I rested against the vehicle, I could have sworn I felt a tremor under my feet. Doing like I always do when I feel that uneasiness (which is more often that I would like to admit), I instantly stood up straight and looked for something that would help me judge movement- a bottle of water, a hanging lamp, a flag suspended on a pole- anything that would show the vibration. But, as I quickly scanned the horizon (with crazy-eyes), trying to not be obvious about my personal issue, I saw nothing out of place. Chalking it up to my now five-year old paranoia, I leaned back against the van, awaiting the arrival of the last adventurers.

Skip ahead a few hours.

As my intrepid group traveled up to Ya’an to spend our day with the pandas, we started getting texts about an earthquake. Where? Ya’an! Many of us thought we felt some weird shaking on the highway, but chalked it up to less than stellar road maintenance. Soon though, after pulling over in a small town, where everyone (!) was outside their homes, we were able to piece together information from friends/colleagues back in Chengdu as well as news coming out through local sources and realized there had been a 6.9 earthquake, centered exactly where we were headed!

Needless to say, after circling the wagons (or at least pulling the vans off to the side of the road) and having a discussion about our options, we decided it was best to turn around and head back to the city.

I could write all about the amazing response time from the Chinese government. (As we headed back to Chengdu on the expressway, we passed ambulance after ambulance, busloads of military, flatbed trucks with digging machines and countless other emergency equipment and vehicles headed to the site of the disaster). I could write about the heart-warming reaction from our community. (When I called around to each officer/family on Monday morning to check in, many of them were already asking me what we could do to reach out and help the victims of Saturday’s quake.) Or, I could write about the continued aftershocks that roll through periodically. (While there have been numerous smaller quakes, there was one particular one on Sunday evening that made me consider crawling under my dining room table for whatever small amount of protection USG furniture would provide.)

But I don’t want to.

All last week as I planned this post (yes, my organizational obsessions extend to my blog- I’m always plotting and planning my next entry), I couldn’t wait to share what I hoped would be jealousy- inducing photos (still trying to get family and friends to come visit!), cuddly cuteness and fun stories of up-close-and-personal panda encounters.

I need more cute in my life. (Lately I’ve been obsessed with the neighbor’s corgi, an adorable dog named Johnny. He currently has a cast on his leg as it heals from a recent break and he owns an array of bandanas he sports as he goes out for his daily walk. If only having a pet in the Foreign Service wasn’t so difficult and expensive…)

So how do I turn an earth-jiggling week into a cute post? By sharing the book I got in the mail this last week. My four-year old niece wrote me a story, illustrated it and, with the help of her wonderful mother, bound the book and dropped it in the mail, headed to China.

For your reading pleasure, Scouty Scout by Audrey.

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Cameras and Crashes in Chengdu

Blue eyes, pasty skin and blonde hair stand out in Idaho like a chubby kid in a McDonalds or the Mets having a losing record at the end of the season. It doesn’t. (Sorry Matt!) Take those same light-colored eyes, nearly translucent skin and “yellow” hair and plop them down in the center of China and the simile is more akin to a tiger in a petting zoo.

Some people hate the constant attention that comes with standing out in the crowd in Sichuan and for families with young kids, I don’t blame them for feeling frustrated. American kids are unique and cute and everyone wants to take photos of them when they are out and about in town. But, I’ve spent my two years in Gansu and then this last year in Sichuan being thoroughly amused at the photo ops, the signature signing and the peace signs flying right and left.

Just Saturday, as we were showing friends around JinLi Street, a local tourist attraction that lures in Chinese and foreign visitors with its abundance of great souvenir shopping, blown sugar in the shape of animals and roasted frogs on a stick (think of it like the Chengdu version of a seaside boardwalk!), I had the chance to be an unwitting member of a photo shoot. After wandering the shopping district, purchasing a rather large, but beautiful, Tibetan mandala inscribed with Buddhist sutras, we decided it was time to give our feet a rest. As we sat on a stone bench, resting our weary dogs, a middle aged Chinese woman plopped onto the bench next to me. After sitting down, she suddenly scooted over next to me, radiating a full-on, camera-ready smile. Then, before I could gather my thoughts enough to laugh at the preposterousness of her nerve, she actually leaned against me as her husband snapped a photo. I’m sure when they go home and pull that slide up on their computer they’ll not be impressed, as the look on my face had to read “Oh my goodness, are you kidding me?!?”  If she would have given me half a second, I would have turned into the camera, pasted on my own cheese ball smile and flashed the ubiquitous two-finger peace sign, making her day.

While I’ve graced innumerable pictures over my years in China, (I really have no idea what people do with those snapshots. Do they claim me as a family friend or just point out the random foreigner they happened upon in town?) today I experienced a first. As I was walking along the sidewalk, hoping to catch a cab rather than having to take the crowded subway home, I was intently watching the traffic, eager to glimpse the red sign light of an empty cab, I watched as the cars came to a stop for the changing signal. The driver of one car was having a nice long stare at the rather conspicuous “laowai” standing on the curb and didn’t notice that there was a line of cars at a total standstill in front of him. As he was getting his good look at the foreign girl, his foot never made it to the brake pedal, crashing him into the back of the delivery truck in front of him. Yup, that dude got in a wreck because he was staring at the blonde woman. Nice!  Needless to say, I stood and watched the negotiations go down as both drivers got out of their vehicles, examined the bumper/hood damage, haggled over a payment price (liability was obviously on the part of the rear-ender-er and not the re-end-y) and cash was handed over. No drawn out saga with an insurance company, claim forms or law enforcement. Business was conducted in the middle of the road, traffic weaving around the deal as it happened.

Lesson for this fine (fine being used lightly, as our air quality read “very unhealthy” for a good deal of the day) afternoon: staring at white woman=fender bender=money changing hands. You’re welcome delivery truck driver! I’m pretty sure I just financed your dinner this evening.



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Maybe Ostrich *Should* Be on the Table

Remember a month, or maybe six weeks ago, when I was talking about my lack of cooking ability and how it was fine because being a middle child, I’d never have to worry about being in charge of a Thanksgiving dinner? (No? Check it out here.)  I figured it would fall to the older sister or the only boy of the family, leaving me free to wander in and out of the kitchen, sampling as I pleased and then sprawl on the couch to watch my fantasy players mop-up during the holiday games.  Well, it turns out, Thanksgiving is headed my way, with a vengeance!

(On a side note, you hear a lot of complaints about being a middle child, but I figure, if you play your cards right, you’ve got the best of both worlds. Having on older sister who was good at cleaning got me out of many a chore. I’d do mine poorly and soon enough, they’d get passed off to her. At one point, I remember the bathroom being on my list of Saturday chores. I’d go in there with my oh-so-80’s boom box, turn on the radio with the door shut and “get to work.” All I needed to do was spend about twenty minutes and make it seem like work had been done. By splashing cleaning powder around the tub, the room had the smell of detergent, which means I worked. Occasionally leaving a trace of powder was also helpful, as it showed I’d really scrubbed. I’d be sure to run water long enough that it was convincing and then swirl some cleaning fluid around the toilet with the brush, again, keeping up appearances and smells. With that done, it was time to unplug my radio and move to my next Saturday morning chore.  It wasn’t long before the majority of the “real” cleaning jobs were reassigned to my sister, while my list included the ever-so-important chore of vacuuming the hallway and emptying the bottom rack of the dishwasher.

On the other end of the family tree, is my younger brother, who, to be fair, got away with a lot, but because he is a boy, bigger things were pushed his way, skipping right over me.  Time to haul hay? My siblings were the bale-buckers while I drove the truck, only occasionally hitting the gas just a little too hard or braking a bit too suddenly.

So middle children, have heart! Play your in-between role for all it’s worth. It can be done.)

But I digress. Thanksgiving. Yes, I am hosting one this year. And not a small one. Right now, my RSVP count is hovering right around the forty-five people mark. That’s right. I’ve gone from never having a Thanksgiving responsibility, beyond calling dibs on the wishbone, to planning and organizing an event for nearly four dozen adults and children.

With just a week until the big poultry eating day (big-poultry to be eaten or big day on which to eat poultry? You decide!), I’ve put in my meat order and am quickly assessing the tableware needs. Luckily, Chengdu has an American-style bakery in town that is cooking turkeys, so they’ll prepare the four birds, but at a price. Those suckers cost $92 each! That’s US dollar rates, by the way.  When I mentioned this to my mom in an email the other day, she responded by asking if they were possibly ostrich. She has a point. Considering wild turkeys wander across the ridge near my parents’ cabin on a regular basis, it’s a little painful to be paying so much, but that’s the name of the import game. If it were ostrich, I could get away with just one, rather than the four headed our way next week. Maybe I should consider a larger poor-at-flying poultry for next year’s festivities.

The birds are taken care of, decorations are ready to go (thanks to Thad’s recent State-side trip), a work order for the room set-up has been placed and now it is a matter of side dishes and desserts. The Foreign Service, in some ways, reminds me a lot of the Mormon ward I grew up in. We too are a potluck community! Nearly every event, whether it be a gathering at the Marine House, a back-to-school pool party or a Thanksgiving dinner, hinges on the attendees hauling along a dish or two for the crowd. Our current sign-up sheet is filled with holiday classics: green bean casserole, sweet potato pie, cornbread, as well as pumpkin pie to top it all off.

“I can’t cook a Thanksgiving dinner. All I can make is cold cereal and maybe toast.” muttered the lovable Charlie Brown in his eponymous Thanksgiving special. He and I are obviously twins, at least when it comes to kitchen-skills. (I have much more hair than him and would never wear a yellow shirt with a giant zigzag across the front. Twins in the kitchen, not in the style department.)  I may not be cooking the entire dinner (I did sign up for my old sit-down-dinner standby- rolls, which will actually be made by my ayi!), but I do have a whole lot of organizing and preparing to do in the next seven days so that the Foreign Service Officers and their families can enjoy a taste of America with a traditional Thanksgiving feast.

Good grief, there’s a lot to get done!

Happy Birthday to My Eyes!

The space shuttle flying piggy-back around the Washington Monument. Baby gorillas frolicking at the National Zoo. My mom’s surprise 60th birthday party. Pandas lazily munching on bamboo. Airports in Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Bangkok and Guiyan. Rainstorms in Thailand. The wedding of two friends. And at least ninety books. (I used my account to come up with that number, but since I sometimes forget to add a book to my “shelf” after I read it, that is a conservative count.)

What do all of these seemingly random things have in common?

They are all wonderful things that my new hawk-eyes have seen in the last year.

Friday was the one-year anniversary of my LASIK surgery and what a great year it has been! It isn’t as if I was blind before and could suddenly see, which would be a medical miracle, but without my contacts, my focused world consisted of about six inches from my face. Contacts were great, especially the leave-in ones that I would wear for a month (or more!) at a time, but once we realized we were going to be spending the bulk of our time living abroad for the next few decades, I figured it was time to throw away the saline solution.

As I went through the numerous pre-operation appointments, I was warned about various possible side-effects, including problems with halos and night vision. (These apparently were a higher concern for my case, as it seems I have abnormally large pupils. Thad has always made fun of my eyes, saying they were like alien eyes, so he was only too happy to have it medically confirmed!) I had put off the surgery for years, mostly on account of these possibly complications. It turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Within hours of the procedure, I had 20/20 vision and never developed any problems with halos, night vision or dryness. LASIK was a total success!

Now, I can roll up a few sets of clothes, stash them in my bag and head off not only to western China, but whatever random city Thad’s next assignment takes us to. And, rather than filling my consumables shipment with contact solution and cleaner, I can use that space for a few extra boxes of Cheerios and some macaroni and cheese.

(Here’s the blog entry I wrote a year ago, just two days after having LASIK surgery.)

With A Side of Smog

Eggs benedict with hollandaise sauce, bacon, pancakes, dragon fruit, tiny oranges, chocolate chip shortbread cake (my contribution to the meal), all with a side of dense, industrial-grade smog.

That’s what we call a true Chengdu brunch.

When I roll out of bed on a Sunday morning, look out my massive floor to ceiling windows in the master bedroom and realize I can barely make out the PLA Hospital that is just a block up the road, I know it is going to be a rough day on the ol’ lungs.  Some days the gray can be blamed on 90% humidity- a fine mist that cools my skin and smears my make-up on my daily scoot to work.

Not today.

Today’s air is thick and gray, not the white of pending rain. Today’s air has the taste of coal and chemicals. Thad suggested that maybe Sichuan is celebrating a new sister holiday to the Spring Lantern Festival, this one being the Autumn Tire Burning Festival.

Of course, I couldn’t just sit on the edge of the bed and marvel at the lack of visibility. I had to know just how bad it really was. So, throwing on my fluffy pink robe and pink, monster-feet slippers, I shuffled out to the living room to fire up the internet and put a number on just how murderous the day would be on my pulmonary friends.

The United States Consulate in Chengdu has a great website filled with information about current events, upcoming activities and the array of American Citizen Services offered by the mission. None of that matters to me. I have the air monitor bookmarked on laptop and on days as hazy as today, go directly there to get the bad news as it is posted.

So, just how bad was the air in Chengdu today?

“Hazardous.”  All day long. (Okay, to be fair, we got a brief respite for about four hours in the late afternoon where the air popped up to the glorious level of “very unhealthy.”) According to the EPA, when the air quality is labeled as “hazardous” by their standards, “everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors; people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should remain indoors and keep activity levels low.”  (If you’re interested, I would suggest a quick trip over to , where the calculations are explained.)

There are a lot of great things about Chengdu.  We’ve got pandas. We’ve got Sichuan Opera. We’ve got lovely parks and spicy food.  The air is not one of those great things. Today, my eyelids feel like they are made of sandpaper. My throat has a scratch to it that wasn’t there yesterday. And the five air filters in my apartment are working overtime.

Sometimes, my lungs sure do miss Idaho.

Moaning About Moon Cakes

In America, around Christmas and the winter holidays, there are always endless jokes about the ubiquitous, yet terrible tradition that is fruitcake. (I will admit from the start, I have never actually tasted a piece of fruitcake. A look at its heavy brown pastry, dotted with candied fruit brings to mind a slab of concrete with large pebbles strewn throughout. Not appetizing in the least.) And while fruitcake may be a uniquely western thing, terrible pastries at a time of celebration are apparently a global phenomenon.

Here in China, the bane of my fall season is a not-so-lovely little treat called the moon cake.

Moon cake shops start to pop up in early September, seemingly overnight. What was once an empty storefront will suddenly be bursting at the seams with fancy, silk-lined boxes of moon cakes, selling for hundreds and even thousands of RMB. Usually these fly-by-night stores also have a variety of bin-cakes, some wrapped, some not, selling on an individual basis. (It is the Chinese version of WinCo Supermarket bins, down to the fact that people dig through them barehanded. I didn’t dare buy goods out of the open grocery store bins in Idaho and I don’t dare do it here!)

These omnipresent snacks are a part of China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival. This fall celebration is a popular harvest festival recognized by the Chinese government as an official holiday, meaning all official businesses are closed, schools are closed and many people go on vacation for an entire week. (It’s like a national spring break, but in the fall, and minus the uber-drunk, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini-clad college students.

Mid-Autumn Festival dates back over 3,000 years to the ancient times of moon worship in China’s Shang Dynasty. I’m pretty sure some of those original moon cakes are still floating around this place, as they don’t seem to have, or need, expiration dates. (Chinese version of the Twinkie?) While it is also sometimes referred to as the Moon Cake Festival, this is less common, but, it does make me think that maybe we should rechristen Christmas and Fruitcake Festival.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, which is usually around late September or early October on the Western calendar. It is a date that parallels the autumnal equinox of the solar calendar, when the moon is supposedly at its fullest and roundest. The traditional food of this festival is the moon cake, of which there are many different varieties, and yet none that I want to eat. Whether it is the type with an entire cooked egg yolk in the middle or the one made of five different nuts, none of them are appealing. And this is coming from someone who has a deeply-ingrained love of pastries. Last week, I got two care packages from the States, one from my best friend Shannon and the other from by parents. Both boxes had a variety of goodies inside, but the one place their overlapped was in their containment of chocolate pudding pies. (Together, they could make one of the best Venn Diagrams known to man!) So I am no slouch when it comes to the consumption of sweet treats, but when I bite through the thick breading that makes up the outer layer of the goodie, only to find I have a mouth full of mashed red bean paste, I don’t consider that a win in my book

In the Middle Kingdom, Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important holidays of the year; a time when, traditionally, farmers would celebrate the end of the summer harvesting season. Customarily on this day, Chinese family members and friends will gather together to admire the bright mid-autumn harvest moon and eat moon cakes under the moon. (As much as I dislike the dense, hockey-puck-like pastries, they really are all the rage here! I even bought a small package of them for my ayi as a thank-you for her wonderful housekeeping skills

With Mid-Autumn Festival right around the bend and moon cakes on every corner, I’ll be on a mini-blogging hiatus as I head to Bangkok for a week of CLO Training, (I need to find out how to CLO better!) and then on to the wedding of a good friend in Guizhou. I’ll be back with tales of Thailand and continued adventures while In Search of the End of the Sidewalk after Columbus Day.

Until then, 中秋节快乐!Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Colorful moon cakes for my ayi

Po’s Stomping Grounds

The Valley of Peace sits just beyond our doorstep here in Chengdu, just an hour by high speed train from the city. Once there it is easy to imagine Po popping out from behind a pillar as he watches epic training battles ensue between the Furious Five.  Wandering amid the ancient Daoist temples and through the heavily forested mountainside, it is a short leap of imagination to envisioning Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper, and Crane studying under Shifu and competing to be the best marital artists in all the land, knowing that they must be prepared to defend their treasure from the wicked Tai Lung.

While this “Valley of Peace” may not exist anywhere but in Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda, the setting that served as inspiration for the film is just a short high-speed train ride away from our home here in Chengdu. DuJiang Yan, the inspiration for those awe-inspiring backgrounds detailed so thoroughly in the film, is not only a breathtaking bit of scenery in western China, but also home to a ground-breaking (literally) irrigation project undertaken in 250BC, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Before the DuJiang Yan irrigation system was built, the Chengdu plain was dry and infertile, but the area near the Min River flooded every spring, causing continual hardship for those farmers living nearby who relied on the river to nourish their crops. Li Bing, a local governor, is credited with noticing the annual adversity, although one would have to think the farmers were well aware of the issue long before anyone official decided to “notice” it. (I’ll refrain from drawing comparisons between Qin Dynasty bureaucracy and more modern-day political wrangling we will be forced to ingest over the next forty-three days.)

He knew the frigid water came from the melting snowpack in the distant mountains and realized that the river must stay open for trade via shipping and his army’s mobility, but also saw that something must change if the people were to continue to prosper in the Sichuan valley.  (And prosper they must, as the world was waiting with baited breath for the introduction of the infamous, mouth-numbing Sichuan spices that invade my every meal!) Because restricting the water flow was out of the question, Li Bing knew a dam was not an option and had to move on to bigger and more inventive ways of creating a habitable region for his people.  While the 1970’s overused the phrase “think outside the box” to the point where it is painfully cliché, Mr. Li might have been on that bandwagon long before corporate America’s management gurus thrust their geometrical jargon upon us.

With his son by his side, (and with some legends including a dragon, which just makes the whole story a whole lot cooler)  eight years of toil by more than 100,000 laborers created a levee system like none the world had seen. Bamboo cages were filled with rocks, redirecting sections of the river away from the flood zone.(The current tourist attraction at DuJiang Yan shows some of these bamboo wrapped rocks, looking eerily similar to something upper-middle class American housewives would buy for a premium price at Pottery Barn!)

Unlike many of the things man makes today, Li Bing’s irrigation system has withstood the test of time.(This was definitely no IKEA, no tools needed, home improvement project!)  Not only are his hand-dug river channels still funneling water throughout the Sichuan plains today, helping to irrigate thousands of acres of farmland, but the levees were flexible enough to withstand the rocking and rolling of the land when the area became the epicenter of a massive earthquake in 2008. (This being the same quake that made my newly built cement apartment building, 150 miles north in Gansu, split at the seams and crumble in the corners.)

Growing up in the midst of farms (potatoes, sugar beets, corn, wheat, mint…and the list goes on…), I was raised understanding the importance of having adequate water for the crops to prosper. And as a kid, I endured more than one lecture from a perturbed farmer who was unhappy with the McDaniel kids pulling his syphon tubes. (Our fiddling wasn’t malicious; we just wanted to know what agricultural magic made water flow uphill. And sadly, I still can’t explain it. Yes, I know the basic principles of physics that dictate the water’s movement, but much like I know the theoretical physics behind airplanes, I am still partially convinced that it all boils down to fairy dust and hocus-pocus.)

So, another CLO trip is in the books.  A day out at an ancient irrigation system was the perfect foil to life in a giant city for this country girl. I may not have spotted Po and his evil leopard fighting crew, but I did enjoy a nearly perfect fall day in what was definitely a Valley of Peace.

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Pigs and Pancakes and Pantries

Somewhere in northern Maryland (okay, not somewhere, Hagerstown) is a gigantic warehouse that is home to the chattel and baubles of American Foreign Service Officers currently serving in far-flung places (and some less far-flung, but still outside the boarders of Home). I’ve never been to this promised land of left-behind goods, but I can only imagine it is more of a complex than a warehouse.

It is somewhere within this massive storage facility that the majority of my HHE still sits, awaiting shipment to Chengdu. Emails have been sent, hallway conversations have been had and there are many sets of eyes anxiously awaiting a reply about when all of our Idaho possessions will begin their literal slow-boat-to-China journey.

But, in the meantime, we did receive our rather small HHE shipment, coming from the Crystal City mo-partment. I may not have wall hangings or kitchenware, but I do have a few items that will make our Chengdu apartment just step closer to being home for the next two years.

Friday’s shipment brought with it my Christmas tree, 75 bottles of nail polish, our winter coats (as fall seems to have hit just this last weekend, I think those coats came right in time), my adorable and colorful Eastern Market bureau and, of course, the goodies from my epic Costco shopping trip.

I can only imagine what my ayi thought when she came to clean the house today and found the back bedroom now doubles as a pantry. After hauling a giant bookcase in there Friday afternoon, I filled it with all of the important things we’ll need over the next two years: 45 boxes of Kraft mac and cheese, 40 packets of microwave popcorn, 108 cans of Mountain Dew, 21 cans of refried beans, 80 Jell-O pudding cups…and the list goes on. (Having been raised in a church that pushes self-sufficiency and emergency preparedness through food storage, I have to say, none of the Sunday handouts I ever got made it look this tasty! Who needs flour and pinto beans and rice when you can have Fruit Loops and Rice Crispy Treats and loads upon loads of Miracle Whip. Wait, wait. Miracle Whip was probably included on the hand outs.)

So, while my HHE arrival wasn’t everything I had ever dreamed and hoped it would be, I am happy to have a few more of our things with us here in the Middle Kingdom, things to make our spacious, but barren, apartment home.

With a newly arrived box of Bisquick and some maple syrup I ordered from the Beijing commissary, this evening we feasted on “breakfast for dinner.”  Granted, I only have my single welcome-kit frying pan, so while the pancakes slowly browned in that, I scrambled eggs in a sauce pan, which may not be a traditional cooking method, but, you’ll not find me complaining.

Granted, if you give this pig a pancake, she will want syrup, get sticky, need a bath and demand bubbles, but she won’t whine about missing photos and office supplies.

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My Lungs Are Whispering Sweet Words of Gratitude

Lungs like fresh air.  (It’s true. I looked it up on Wikipedia.)

To that end, a day out of Chengdu is a perfect “pulmo-cation” and so I did my CLO-duty and planned a trip to Luo Dai, an ancient city about an hour outside Sichuan’s capital that boasts a mini-Great Wall, horses that take riders around a lake and a tourist-filled street of shopping and photography. (That’s right, I’m making up words again. But, what better way to describe a day long holiday for one’s largest respiratory organ than “pulmo-cation?”)

While the idea was to give people a chance to get out of the city, see some of the surrounding countryside and enjoy the first fall-fall feeling day of the season, the bit of R&R for our lungs was also greatly appreciated. But, instead, some of us decided to punish our lungs with a hike up the small-Great Wall in Luo Dai.  (I always thinking hiking is a good idea. My brain thinks it sounds invigorating and refreshing, but about ten minutes in to whatever excursion I previously thought to be a positive experience, I am mentally cursing myself, with a few of those murmurs escaping my lips.)

As with many Chinese tourist-sites, stairs are the name of the game at Luo Dai. From the base of the hill, Thad and I could see the staircase straddling the ramparts of the wall, headed straight up the mountainside, with no respite until the first large guard tower, which lay at least a million stairs in front of us. At this point though, I was still gung-ho and ready to go! We were out of Chengdu, the weather was cool and misty and I was ready to tackle the challenge.

That all changed about twenty stairs in to the hike when my lungs were starting to ache from (possibly) too much fresh air, my thighs burned with each unevenly spaced stair and gravity started pulling heavier and heavier on my purse carrying our umbrellas, a water bottle, paper for the squatties and other necessities.

But, with more pride than brains sometimes, I continued up the mountain, taking it a stair at a time and pausing every ten or so to catch my breath, shed a layer or sip some quickly disappearing water.

The countryside surrounding the wall was beautiful. Because it had rained overnight, there trees were covered in dew drops and the air had the crisp feeling that tells you autumn is right around the corner. I would love to say it was somewhere we will haul all of our visitors, (you’re coming, right visitors?) but we were sadly disappointed in how commercialized the area is. As we stood to look back at the path we had already traversed (this being between the second and third guard towers on the wall, and really just an excuse for me to let my lungs simmer down a bit), rather than getting an expansive view of the wall, the forests and the sky, we saw rows of tents, set up on the pathway, hawking everything from ice cream and cold noodles to rubber snakes, plastic whistles and canvas shoes. (I think the canvas shoe business is booming on the wall, as I saw more than one Chinese woman ascending in high heels, but then all those coming back down the wall were shod in flats. Maybe one should consider their choice of footwear before undertaking such an outing?)

After the third guard tower, as we faced another steep climb up the final leg of the mountain, my lungs were crying “Uncle” and Thad’s disgust with the endless selling of random crap on the wall got the better of us. We decided it was best to call it a day on the wall and go ride horses instead. Not wanting to backtrack our entire journey (the wall in Luo Dai does not make a circuit, meaning once you reach the end, you must turn around and go back the way you came), so we drew on our Gansu roots and hopped of the beaten (mortared and stoned) path. After crawling down a slick, rickety ladder that went over the side of the wall, we passed through a hole in the wall and found a farmer’s pathway. We knew if we made it back to the lake we would easily find the rest of our group, so down the hill we went, with not quite the grace of mountain goats, but with neither of us ending up on our bums either. (Because of the rain the night before, the dirt path was a bog of red-hued mud that caked on to my tennis shoes, adding a good five pounds to my weight by the time we reached the foot of the hill. I spent quite a while this morning, squatting on the floor of my bathroom with the shower head in hand, trying to get the red-dye of the mud off my cute pink and gray kicks!)

After passing through what was clearly an outdoor chicken slaughter house (the blood and feathers were fresh enough for me to assume the recently deceased chicken was probably the same one staring back at me, comb and all, from a stew placed in the center of our table just an hour later), we came upon the lake and it’s bored looking horses. (Much like a NASCAR driver, these horses spend their days in a continual state of turning left.)

The day continued with a quick loop around the lake on a horse with an unintelligible Sichuan Hua named mount (local dialect, confounding for native Mandarin speakers, which makes it way beyond my subsistence level Chinese abilities)  for me and Thad’s hilariously named steed- Shui Bi (Sprite) and then lunch that included the previously mentioned, recently expired chicken. Then it was back in to town to stroll the “ancient street” in search of Luo Dai trinkets without which I couldn’t survive. (Not surprisingly, there was nothing that fell in to this category.) This old part of town is a hotspot where young women rent costumes from ancient dynasties and then pose in the various courtyards as if they were members of the ruling family. Thad and I were sucked in to numerous photo sessions while we wandered the street. Nothing says anachronism like a Chinese woman attired in a beautiful Qing dynasty gown, sharing the frame with a mud-covered, jean-clad white woman!

While the day ran a bit longer than I had expected, I am chalking this one up to as a CLO-success, as the hour long bus ride back to Chengdu was filled with open-mouth naps, not only on the part of the kids (most of whom scaled the mini-Great Wall as if they were close cousins with a gazelle family), but also by a number of both adults and tour guides. When that many Z’s are needed, I think it counts as a great Saturday!

(And, I am sure our lungs are giving us a standing, pneumo-vation.)

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Rolling in Renminbi

I don’t want to make money; I just want to be wonderful.  -Marilyn Monroe


We’ve been in China for fifteen weeks now, which means I’ve been on the job for thirteen weeks. (Knowing the exact number of weeks we’ve been living in Sichuan has nothing to do with a countdown to another placement or some crazy obsession with days and hours and minutes spent here, but rather a patient ticking off of the rotations of the sun on the prison wall containing my HHE. We got an email from the mysterious Mr. Xu this last week that told us our worldly goods have made it to Chengdu, but won’t be released until someone goes down and pays a rather large sum of cash for them. Customs fees? Bribes? Ransom money? I have no idea, but I feel like maybe this transaction is going to involve a large silver suitcase, a key to an anonymous locker in a bustling train station and a lot of ear-piece wearing folks in dark suits  and Ray-Ban sunglasses. All of this, at least in my imagination, for a quirkily painted dresser I bought at a flea market in DC, some jars of peanut butter and boxes of Cheerios made in the epic Costco run and a few boxes of clothing that I haven’t seen in well over a year and will probably dispose of anyway.)

But, fifteen weeks and thirteen on the job. No big deal, right? Except, I hit a major milestone Thursday.


That’s right. It took thirteen weeks and no small amount of extra work on the parts of my management officer and the consulate’s office management specialist, but payday has arrived!

Marilyn Monroe may have been content with being wonderful, but I’d rather be wonderful *and* have the cash-o-la to buy a bauble or two to accessorize said wonderfulness. I firmly believe one can never have enough purses, necklaces or shoes. To which end, I’ve been spending Thad’s hard earned paycheck, but now, I’ve got not only his, but mine as well!

I’ve promised Thad a fancy evening at Pizza Hut to celebrate my new-found position as a bread-winner in the Ross household, but our party plans have been put on hold for a few days, as Thad has been serving as the social sponsor for a new family who has moved in to our apartment complex. That means trips to the airport (possibly putting him within yards of our hostage-held belongings), dinners at neighborhood restaurants, trips to grocery stores and cell phone outlets and just general introductions to the fabulous area in which we live. Plus, with the earthquake in Yiling on Friday, he had to go in and work for a few hours today, making sure any Americans in the affected areas are safe and accounted for. Needless to say, payday pizza has been put on hold for a bit. But, pizza and possibly the world’s most elaborate salad do await us. Sometime. Soon.

While you don’t need to call me up if you are gangsta’, I do like fancy and you are definitely free to get dancey, so, like Pink and her pop-punk party crashes, won’t you come on, come on and raise your glass.  I am once again a wage-earning member of society.